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«Count Belisarius», Robert Graves

Robert Graves

FOREWORD

 

Most people find it difficult to make a logical connexion in their minds between the characters of the straightforward Classical age and those of the romantic age of medieval legend. King Arthur, for example, seems to belong to a far more antique epoch than Julius Caesar; yet his Christianity dates liim some centuries later.

How these two ages overlapped will be seen in this story of Count Belisarius. Here is a Roman general whose victories are not less Roman, nor his strategical principles less classical, than Julius Caesar's. Yet the army has by now changed almost beyond recognition, the old infantry legion having at last disappeared, and Belisarius (one of the last Romans to be awarded the dignity of the Consulship and the last to be awarded a triumph) is a Christian commander of mail-clad Household knights, nearly all of barbarian birth, whose individual feats rival those of King Arthur's heroes. In his time occur characteristically Romantic situations. For example, caitiff rogues lead away captive maidens to dolorous castles in the hills (during the Moorish raids on Roman Africa), and his knights chivalrously prick out to the rescue with banners and lances.

The miraculous element in the story of King Arthur is partly primitive saga and folk-tale, partly monkish mysticism of a far later date. But in Belisarius's case the chief authority for his private life and campaigns was not any Hunnish or Gothic member of his Household- who would doubtless have made a rambling epic of it, for the monks to embroider in succeeding centuries – but his educated Syrian-Greek secretary, Procopius of Caesarea. Procopius was on the whole a Classically well-informed, judicious writer, as was also Agathias, who supplies the final military chapter; so there has been no romantic distortion here, as in King Arthur's case. The historical King Arthur seems to have been a petty British King, a commander of allied cavalry, whom the Romans left to his fate when their regular infantry were withdrawn from the garrison towns of Britain at the beginning of the fifth century. If a Procopius had been his chronicler, the ogres and fairy ships and magicians and questing beasts would not have figured in the story, except perhaps as a digressive account of contemporary British legend. Instead we should have a lucid chapter or two of late Roman military history – Arthur's gallant attempt to preserve a remnant of Christian civilization in the West country against the pressure of heathen invasion. And Arthur's horse would have been a big-boned cavalry charger, not a fairy steed Hying him wildly off towards the Christian millennium.

Belisarius was born in the last year of the disastrous fifth century (King Arthur's century), in which the Anglo-Saxons had over-run Southern Britain; the Visigoths, Spain; the Vandals, Africa; the Franks, Gaul; the Ostrogoths, Italy. He died five years before the birth of the Prophet Mohammed.

Wherever surviving records are meagre I have been obliged to fill in the gaps of the story with fiction, but have usually had an historical equivalent in mind; so that if exactly this or that did not happen, something similar probably did. The Belisarius-Antoiiina-Theodosius love-triangle, however fictional it may seem, has been adopted with very little editing from the Secret History. Nor is the account here given of sixth-century ecclesiastical and Hippodrome politics exaggerated. The only invented character is Belisarius's uncle Modestus, a familiar type of the tinsel-age Roman man of letters. The two Italo-Gothic documents quoted in the text are genuine.

The distances are given in Roman miles, practically equivalent to English miles. Place-names are modernized wherever this tends to make them more recognizable.

The maps are by Richard Cribb. I have to thank Laura Riding for the great help she has given me in problems of language and narrative.

CHAPTER I

THE BOYHOOD OF BELISARIUS

 

When he was seven years old, Belisarius was told by his widowed mother that it was now time for him to leave her for a while, and her retainers of the household and estate at Thracian Tchernien, and go to school at Adrianople, a city some miles away, where he would be under the guardianship of her brother, the Distinguished Modestus. She bound him by an oath on the Holy Scriptures – she was a Christian of the Orthodox faith – that he would fulfil the baptismal oath sworn on his behalf by his god-parents, both of whom were recently dead. Belisarius took this oath, renouncing the world, the flesh, and the devil.

I, the author of this Greek work, am a person of little importance, a mere domestic; but I spent nearly my whole life in the service of Antonina, wife to this same Belisarius, and what I write you must credit. Let me then first quote an opinion of my mistress Antonina on the subject of this oath sworn at Tchermen: she held that it was most injudicious to bind little children by spiritual oaths of such a sort, particularly before they have even attended school or had the least experience of the world of men and women and clerics. It was no less against Nature, she said, than if one subjected a child to some bodily handicap: for example, that he should always carry about with him, wherever he went, a small log of wood; or that he should never turn his head in the socket of his shoulders, but either bend the whole body around or move his eyes, perhaps, independently of the head. These would be great inconveniences, admittedly, but not nearly so great as those attendant on a solemn oath, to renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil, taken by a young nobleman destined for the service of His Sacred Majesty the Emperor of the Eastern Romans, who rules at Constantinople. For cither, on the boy's reaching adolescence, temptations come on him and the oath is broken, and his heart is filled with remorse – in which case he loses confidence in his own moral fortitude; or else the oath is broken in the same way but no remorse is felt, because world, flesh, and devil appear delightful things – in which case he loses all sense of the solemn nature of an oath.

Yet Belisarius was so exceptional a child and grew to be so exceptional a man that no difficulties whatsoever put in his way could have greatly troubled him. To take the absurd instance that my mistress used: he would easily have accommodated his body to the rule of never turning his head on his shoulders and would have made this habit seem nobility, not stiffness. Or he would have carried about his perpetual log of wood and made this seem the most convenient and necessary object in the world – a weapon, a stool, a pillow – so that he even might have set a City fashion in handsomely carved and inlaid logs of wood. And certainly this fashion would be no sillier or more superstitious than many current today among the young dandies of the rival factions at the Hippodrome, and many more that have come in and gone out again in this wearisome century: fashions in beards, cloaks, oaths, toys, scents, games of chance, carnal postures, terms of endearment, aphrodisiacs, religious argument and opinion, reliquaries, daggers, comfits.

Belisarius, at all events, took this dangerous oath with the same innocence of purpose as when once young Theseus of Athens swore before his widowed mother to avenge his father's death on the monstrous Minotaur of the Cretan Labyrinth, who ate human flesh.

Whether or not he was true to the oath you shall judge after reading this story. But let me assure you, if you are perhaps Christians of the monkish sort who read this, that Belisarius was not at all of your habit of mind, and cared little for dogma; and that when he became master of a large household he forbade all ecclesiastical disputation within the walls of his house, as being unprofitable to the soul and destroying the family peace. This was my mistress Antonina's decision first of all, but he agreed with her after a time and made it his, and subjected even bishops and abbots, if they happened to be his guests, to the same discipline.

So this was the first of the three oaths he swore; and the second was to his Emperor – to the old Emperor Anastasius, in whose reign he was born, and subsequently to the two successors of Anastasius; and the third oath was to my mistress Antonina as his wife. These remarks will serve as preface to the work which follows, which I am writing in extreme old age at Constantinople in the year of our Lord 571; which is the thirteen hundred and sixth year from the foundation of the City of Rome.

Belisarius was born in the year of our Lord 500, and his mother regarded this as ominous. For the Devil was, she believed, allowed dominion on this earth for a thousand years, and at the close of this time mankind would finally be redeemed: therefore the year of her only son's birth came, as she said, in the very centre of the long black night dividing the first day of glory from the second. But I, Eugenius the Eunuch, confess that I regard such opinions as superstitious and altogether unworthy of sensible persons; nor did my dear mistress Antonina think otherwise in these matters.


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